Is Israel gearing up for another offensive in Gaza?

More than two years have passed since the conclusion of ‘Operation Protective Edge’, Israel’s most recent, and most devastating, offensive against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Superficially, things remain calm – but disturbing developments in recent months suggest that the Israeli government may be preparing for a renewed – and even more brutal – attack on the enclave.

There are three clearly identifiable trends in terms of a shift in Israeli policy towards Gaza.

First, despite rhetoric to the contrary, aspects of the ongoing, and illegal, blockade have tightened. This has included “a sharp increase in the number of security blocks applied to traders in late 2015” as documented by Israeli NGO Gisha. Since then, “and with greater frequency over the past several months”, Palestinians are being “routinely denied” exit permits.

In July, Israeli newspaper Haaretz described how “restrictions have been tightened on Palestinians seeking to depart the Gaza Strip and on imports permitted into the territory.” This included, the paper said, a prohibition on “certain businessmen from importing their merchandise into Gaza” on the grounds of unspecified “security reasons.”

Earlier this month, a senior official at the Gaza Chamber of Commerce and Industrydeclared the current situation to be “the worst ever.”

United Nations data confirms the blockade tightened in July, while in August, just 110 truckloads of goods exited Gaza, less than half the figure for January, and just 14 percent of 2005 levels.

In April, the UN said the most urgent step required for the reconstruction of Gaza remains “the removal of [Israeli] restrictions on the import of building materials, towards a full lifting of the blockade.”

A second, related, development has been the Israeli authorities’ crackdown on NGOs and aid workers operating in Gaza. The most prominent example of this are the arrests and prosecutions of World Vision staffer Mohammad el-Halabi and UNDP engineer Waheed al-Bursh, both charged with varying degrees of support for Hamas. Halabi’s case in particular, has prompted concern; the charge-sheet alleges a fantastic conspiracy, the numbers don’t add up, he was held without a lawyer for three weeks, and his trial is being conducted entirely in secret.

In September, Foreign Policy described how “many aid workers” believe the case to be “part of a broader policy shift in Israel aimed at stifling humanitarian work and economic life in Gaza.” Yet, as the piece notes, “even before Halabi was indicted…NGOs said they were feeling unexpected pressure from Israeli authorities.” Three-fourths of “senior employees from NGOs and UN agencies” spoken to by Foreign Policy “said it had recently become more difficult to work in Gaza.”

The third compelling trend this year has been an intensification of Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians in the ‘no-go zones’, or access restricted areas (ARA).

In April-June, for example, there were an average of more than 90 shooting incidents per month by Israeli forces in the ARA, according to UN data – more than double the equivalent average figures for the last six months of 2015. Commenting on the figures, a senior UN official said the “victims” of these “almost daily shooting incidents” are typically “farmers, fishermen, children, and demonstrators.”

These attacks occur both on land, close to the border fence, and also at sea, where Palestinian fishermen working in the Gaza Strip’s territorial waters are frequently attacked, harassed, and obstructed by Israeli naval forces enforcing unilaterally-imposed restrictions. Citing human rights group Al-Mezan, Reuters recentlyreported that 113 Gaza fishermen have been detained by Israel this year, compared with 41 in the same period of 2015. Detainees report that they are pressurised by Israeli forces to become collaborators.

Against this backdrop, the briefings being put out by the Israeli military (via their faithful stenographers known as newspaper security correspondents) are worthy of note. Last month, a “senior IDF officer” told the Times of Israel that Gaza was heading towards disaster – but that Hamas’s “Islamic dictatorship”, not the blockade (which wasn’t mentioned), is to blame for the lack of reconstruction. “An outburst [of violence] ,” he warned, “in our opinion, is just a matter of time.”

Meanwhile, Israel’s response to sporadic rocket fire emanating from the Gaza Strip is intensifying. In August, a single rocket strike on Sderot by a Salafist group was followed by dozens of Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, described by one Israeli defence correspondent as a “clear escalation.” Two separate rocket strikes – one hitting Sderot without causing injuries and the other hitting open land – on October 5 and 6 similarly produced multiple Israeli attacks on Hamas sites. In response, Hamas warned that it would not stand idle if Israel’s escalation continues.

On October 6, Israeli analyst Amos Harel, in a piece questioning the wisdom of Israel’s punitive strikes policy, suggested that “as long as Israel’s strikes don’t kill any Palestinian civilians, Hamas can afford to exercise restraint.” That same day, Israeli media speculated that there may soon be a return to extrajudicial – or ‘targeted’ – killings in Gaza.

Back in June, an anonymous Israeli official declared that “the next confrontation [in the Gaza Strip] must be the last in terms of Hamas’s regime.” That individual was believed to be none other than Avigdor Lieberman, defense minister. With the pressure on Gaza only increasing, Israel may be looking to, slowly, provoke a full-scale offensive that would aim to remove Hamas entirely.

Recall how decisions taken by the Israeli authorities in the first half of 2014 – such as opposing the Palestinian unity government and obstructing a solution to the wages of civil servants in Gaza – were a key part of the lead up to ‘Operation Protective Edge’.

As Israeli newspaper publisher Amos Schocken told an interviewer last year, “the [2014] war broke out because Israel pushed [Hamas] into a corner, with the siege and the intolerable situation in Gaza.” Is history now repeating itself?

 Ben White
TRT World